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Life extension is the art and science of maximising the individual human life span. It therefore concerns all attempts to promote health and quality of life, to slow or "reprogram" the process of biological ageing, to augment our natural self-repair and immune systems, to cybernetically "upgrade" the human body, and possibly in the distant future to allow a human being to transcend natural biology. Life extension is therefore aspect one aspect of transhumanism. The successful practice of life extension by a large number of people may also in future significant drive further population ageing.
PERPETUATING A TREND
Across the 20th century the average human life span roughly doubled from about 35 years to a world-wide average of about 67. This increase can be attributed to improvements in sanitation, healthcare and diet. Variations in average life span around the world today also remain linked to these three factors. Today, the World Bank reports that life expectancy at birth is 83 in Japan, 80 in the UK, 78 in the US, 73 in China and 64 in India. The country with the lowest life expectancy is currently Zimbabwe where people are expected to live on average for just 44 years. A map showing differing worldwide life expectancies can be found here.
As the above reminds us, human actions to raise the quality of living have a significant impact on average life spans, with the diet, heathcare technology and broader infrastructure to which people have access being a major determinant of how long they will live. The idea that in the future at least some people may take actions and use technology to try and significantly increase their own, individual life span is therefore far from outlandish. In the early 21st century it is also now possible to identify a range of developments that may in time permit life extension to become a common choice and reality.
For any individual, current and future life extension measures fall into four potential categories. The first two of these are already available to most people today, and comprise making changes to what they consume -- for example by carefully selecting the food that they eat and controlling their intake of other chemicals -- and making lifestyle changes -- for example to take regular and appropriate exercise.
Later this century, people may also have the option to expand their life spans by re-programming, replacing or augmenting their natural biology -- for example using genetic engineering or having synthetic organ replacements -- or by transcending (in whole or part) their biological human form -- for example by transitioning to a cybernetic body or uploading themselves into cyberspace.
The following sections explore all of these options in more detail.
The longevity of the human body is fairly obviously impacted by what it is forced to consume. As covered in detail on the website for the Life Extension Foundation, an increasingly common approach to "anti-ageing" is therefore to control diet and to take nutritional supplements.
As LongevityMeme.com also explores, the "enemy of ageing" can be held at bay via an approach of "healthy life extension". This involves stopping consuming substances (such as tobacco, alcohol and other drugs) that can damage the body, and adopting a diet and lifestyle targeted at maximising life span. As a simple example, even eating our recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can add a year or two to how long we will live.
In addition to eating healthier foods, there is some evidence that the consumption of certain specific supplements may increase both lifespan and the quality of life enjoyed in old age. Popular anti-ageing supplements include resveratrol, the steroid hormone pregnenolone, the amino-acid derivative carnitine, antioxidant vitamins, and calcium supplements. In animal experiments, some of these have also delivered significant anti-ageing results.
In September 2010, Dr Vladimir Skulachev of the Bioenergetics Department at Moscow State University even claimed to have developed an anti-oxidant pill that will significantly increase the human lifespan. According to the good doctor just a few more years of testing are necessary before he will definitely know for sure.
Supplements and potential future wonder pills aside, a scientifically proven means of extending healthy life is to adopt a calorie restriction and optimal nutrition (CRON) diet. This involves reducing your intake of calories to a level 20-40 per cent lower than typical, whilst still consuming necessary levels of vitamins and nutrients. The exact extent to which this can expand the human life span is subject to significant scientific debate, although some studies in animals have shown up to a 40 per cent life extension. However, there is strong evidence for at least some healthy life extension resulting from calorie restriction, and as evidenced by reports contained on the website LongevityMeme.com and in the Journal of the American Society of Hematology. Further information on CRON diets can also be obtained from the Calorie Restriction Society
EXERCISE AND LIFE EXTENSION
Just like any other machine, how fast the human body will wear out also depends to a reasonable extent on how well it is treated and maintained. Indeed, several studies now show that taking regular exercise adds several years to life expectancy, in addition to improving health in the later years of life. For example, as reported in this article by Dr Mark Stibich, highly active 65-year-olds on average live 5.7 years longer than those who are inactive.
Given that links between diet, exercise and life span are now well known (if not obvious!) it is perhaps somewhat surprising that in many developed nations a significant segmentation is taking place between (at the extremes) health-obsessed fitness fanatics and clinically obese couch potatoes. Already in parts of some developed nations poor diet and exercise regimes are expected to result in a lower life expectancy for children than their parents. Given that across human history to this point in time access to rather than use of appropriate resources was the major contributing factor to life expectancy, this is somewhat bizarre. It also suggests at the very least that life extension is not something that will be pursued to any extent by a significant proportion of the population.
To see how your own diet, lifestyle and other factors may impact on your individual life expectancy you may want to try the Livingto100.com Life Expectancy Calculator. This takes about 10 minutes to complete. A far quicker calculator can also be found here.
Moving beyond those current measures that we may all choose or negect to take note of, looking ahead there are also a significant number of technological possibilities on the horizon that may help with life extension. Some of these also involve a direct "reprogramming" of our natural human biology to slow or overcome certain ageing processes.All of our natural biological cycles are determined by the deep complexities of our DNA. Hence, whilst our biological selves are clearly capable of growing every part of us and in some cases even supplying complete replacements as we age (such as a new set of teeth in our early years), our biological code currently places very significant limits on how and when this can happen. To cite an article by Dr Julian Whitaker, "when we are in our mother's womb, thousands of genes orchestrate our growth in that environment. After birth, these genes are naturally turned off and other genes are activated to give us the appropriate genetic direction for growth and development. Then, around age 25, our genes start shutting down. This loss of genetic power continues, as gradual as the ageing process, until we die".
The above presents an opportunity for future genetic engineering to try and switch back on our "longevity genes". Already the gene has been found that may enable us to grow a new set of teeth. As reported by Julian Whitaker, peptide triggers have also already been isolated that can turn some of the genes that control our early growth back on. Indeed, an over-the-counter anti-ageing skin cream called Aminocare is already available that claims to act as a "gene trigger" to turn back on genes shut down during the ageing process. In the future, further drugs or other therapies than may allow our own bodies to "naturally" repair or replace our own major organs are therefore a potential possibility.
ARTIFICIAL IMMUNE & REPAIR SYSTEMS
All of us are kept alive by a complex collection of biological processes that comprise our immune systems, and which protect us from disease by identifying and killing viruses, pathogens, tumours and other threats. Our bodies also do an amazing job of constant self-repair, preservation and renewal. Indeed, considering how quickly meat left out of a fridge or freezer would rot, it is quite staggering that most human bodies manage to wander around the planet as functioning biological entities for seventy years or more.
Unfortunately, as we all know only too well, our natural defences and repair capabilities have their limits and degrade over time. Indeed, beyond adolescence a great many of the cells in our bodies are never replaced. However, technological developments in fields such as nanotechnology may change this, with the possibility existing that in future our natural immune and repair systems may be augmented with tiny machines that constantly travel our bodies. Such "nanobot doctors" could monitor our health and could make repairs at the cellular and even atomic level. They could also identify and kill diseases and mutations, potentially even drawing on external computing and information resources to assist them in this task. If effective enough, such future technology could extend the human life span very significantly by preserving our "natural" biological forms from all but the gravest of physical accidental damage and the most serious ravages of time.
For more information, you may want to read the very detailed paper by Chris Phoenix on Nanotechnology and Life Extension. You may also want to view this excellent video on Detecting Disease with Nanotechnology.
Beyond augmenting our natural defences to improve our capability to internally diagnose and self-repair, future life extension may also involve the surgical replacement of major or minor organs. For some time transplants of kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs and now even faces from human donors have been a reality that have kept some people alive and/or improved their quality of life. However, organ replacement from human donors carries significant risks of rejection. "Second hand" human organs are therefore unlikely to play a major role in life extension in the future as medical and related sciences continue to progress.
Over the next couple of decades an increasing alternative to the use of human donor organs may be offered as a result of xenotransplantation. This is where cells, tissues or entire organs are exchanged between species. For example, DNA from an individual human being may be inserted into the genes of a pig, with the animal's organs then becoming available for transplant into that person without rejection. Such a development raises significant ethical debates. However, technically the possibility will one day exist for people to be have one or more donor animals kept "in stock" as an insurance against the accidental damage or disease of parts of their own body. Before this level of customization, banks of generic pig organs carrying human DNA are likely to become available. Indeed, as reported by the Times Online, the use of pig kidneys for human transplant could be widespread by 2018.
However, even replacement organs obtained from animals "humanized" with a patient's DNA are likely to remain a second-best organ replacement solution. Not least this is because, just like donor human organs, they will never be an exact match to the patient and will always be "second-hand". Looking further into the future, entirely synthetic replacement body parts are therefore far more likely to be used for life extension purposes.
In eye surgery, the replacement of the natural crystalline lens of the human eye with an implanted lens is now a regular procedure for treating cataracts. However, in the relatively near future far less generic synthetic body part replacements may well become common. Offering most promise today for future life extension may be the 3D printing of replacement human organs in a development variously known as "organ printing" or "tissue printing" or, most commonly, "bioprinting".
As discussed on the bioprinting page, the use of technologies not unlike those used in inkjet photo printers is already being experimented within in research labs to output synthetic organic materials. For example, regenerative medicine pioneer Organovo has already managed to output blood vessels and cardiac tissue via a printer that dispenses cells instead of ink. The material so created actually fused into living tissue just 70 hours after being printed, and started beating 20 hours after that. In Japan, Professor Makoto Nakamura from the Toyama University is also experimenting with tissue printing, having realised that the particles of ink emitted from an inkjet printer are about the same size as human cells. An article on his work -- including a photo -- can be found here. Or you can read about this at the Impact Lab.
Over the past couple of decades medical science has developed a significant experise in the 3D imaging of patient's bodies. The development of organ printing to help future doctors use such 3D data to enable the output of replacement, synthetic organs printed with cells cultured from the patient's own body may therefore be the next logical step forward. Such synthetic organs would be entirely "new", would physically match the patient's requirements exactly, and ought to be rejection-free.
As reported in this article from Medical News Today, the US Department of Health & Human Services has predicted that within 20 years regenerative medicine techniques including bio-printing will be able to "replace all tissue/organ systems in the [human] body". Initially synthetic organs are likely to be printed outside of the body and transplanted via traditional surgery. However, in time "in-situ organ printing" may be developed where some kind of keyhole device featuring robotic surgical tools and a bio-printhead is inserted into a patient. This would gradually remove the original organ whilst printing its new replacement. Decades hence this could ultimately lead to synthetic organ replacement becoming a fairly routine procedure.
As described above, the potential life extension technologies on the potential horizon are considerable. However, developments like bioprinting and nanotech immune systems are not going to be available to help preserve and extend life anytime soon. As a consquence, already some people are relying on "cryonics". This is where a person's body is deep frozen in liquid nitrogen when they die to preserve their body in hope that the techniques required to "reanimate" them will one day be developed. This may most likely involve the use of nanobots to cure whatever killed them and to repair any damage caused by the freezing process. Insurance policies to pay for cryonic suspension currently start at $30 a month. If interest grows, we could end up with thousands or even millions of people silently frozen in vast catacombs awaiting their second coming.
Pictured above is a potential near-future cryonics catacomb. With companies including the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and the Cryonics Institute already offering deep-freeze cro-suspension as a commercial service, this is also a future vision that is already starting to arrive.
All of the life extension possibilities discussed to this point involve attempting to live longer by better maintaining the human body and replacing damaged or worn-out parts with like-for-like biological spares. However, it is also already not difficult to imagine an alternative approach to life extension where we cease attempting to maintain a "human" body at all, and instead focus on replacing the body in whole or part with a quite different technological alternative that need not attempt to mirror internal human biology. Such thinking leads us into the realm of the "cyborg" and the notion of some people surviving beyond their "natural" biological life span by merging with artificial technology.
Life extension or improvement by cybernetic means is also something that is already with us. For example, pacemakers have been inserted into patients for years, as have artificial hips and cochlea implants. As reported by Physorg.com, researchers at MIT recently also showcased a retinal implant to feed a sightless person images from a camera. Such technological additions to natural human anatomy closely replicate or augment natural biological functions. However, potentially at least it may one day become possible to replace the body in large part or entirely within an technological alternative. For example, we may build androids that house the human brain, but which do not contain counterparts to "natural" organs such as the heart and lungs. Such a development may lead some people to question whether life extension by such means would leave the patient "human" at all. However, possibilities for life extension may not even end with entirely artificial bodies.
Moving beyond the physical, one day it may also become possible to interface the human brain directly into a computer system and to "upload" our mind into cyberspace. With direct linkages to the auditory and optic nerves having already been made, future direct computer-brain interfaces are also by no means an impossibility. Indeed Microsoft has already been reported as attempting to patent a brain-computer link.
Should technology one day be developed to enable the human mind to be uploaded into a computer, all sorts of possibilities for life extension could become a reality. These would range from disembodied human beings being kept alive in "brain farms" whilst they occupants got on with their lives in virtual worlds not unlike Second Life, though to the extended-life individual existing only as computer code with all vestiges of their physical body having being destroyed once they had been successfully uploaded into cyberspace. Related ethical considerations would obviously be a nightmare. However, the option to upload into cyberspace may nevertheless be a very appealing and sought-after choice for anybody whose only other option is death.
A BLESSING OR A CURSE?
The above outlandish scenario is perhaps useful in grounding any debate concerning life extension. Most people immediately react to the idea of living indefinitely as a disembodied brain or computer code as "wrong" for a whole host of reasons. And yet most also see no ethical problems with pursuing a life extension diet and improving the routine medical maintenance of the human body. The problem hence becomes where the line ought to be drawn between these two extremes and by whom.
Perhaps the "answer" is to be found by thinking a little more deeply about what "life extension" actually means and may be pursued for. To some extent, large numbers of us are already heading towards at least partial immortality on the Internet, with the Facebook, YouTube and Twitter generation practically uploading bits of "themselves" from birth into a realm that tends never to delete their digital trail. With developments in artificial intelligence, it is therefore not difficult to imagine being able to interact with at least a form of many of us online years and even centuries after we cease to physically exist.
The human race has become expert in preserving itself memetically as much as genetically. If a major reason to pursue life extension is to seek immortality, then the intrusion of the Internet into our lives may inadvertently have already made this a reality. Facebook have indeed recently announced that they will give friends and family the option to "memorialise" the profiles of members who have died. For some people, the issue may therefore already be how they can be certain at least select parts of themselves will cease to exist after their death, rather than the holy grail of life eternal.
More information on life extension can be found in my book 25 Things You Need to Know About the Future. I also discuss technologies and developments that will facilitate our future transhuman evolution in The Next Big Thing.
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The first people who will live to 200 may have already been born.
Learn more about the developments that will catalyze our transhuman evolution in "The Next Big Thing".